I spent a lot of second grade working on damp purple worksheets and trying not to think about my feet. Because once I started thinking about my feet, I couldn’t stop: the Velcro strips cinching my shoes closed suddenly seemed too tight, and I couldn’t wiggle my toes. And then my feet got too hot. And then they started tingling and my toes felt numb, and then I wasn’t even sure they were still there, inside my dirty shoes—

Which is why it was better not to think about feet at all. Except, trying not to think about them was basically the same as thinking about them.

I desperately wanted my teacher, Mrs. Brown, to like me, but I knew she didn’t. She liked Lindsay. Lindsay was calm and cool and popular, with a grown-up kind of laugh that paralyzed me with envy. Whereas I played too much freeze tag at recess and came inside so hot that when I sat down, I’d skate around in the sweat on my chair.

Lindsay had tight blonde curls and clear blue eyes, a quiet voice and a shy smile. I had (still have) drab brown straight hair. I talked too much in class and always had my name up on the board. With checkmarks after it.

Lindsay exhibited horses on the weekends and would show us pictures of her with her horse, and her cool riding outfit, and the blue ribbons she’d won. On the weekends I was busy marching around my house with a hand mirror, carefully watching the reflection of the ceiling, so that if gravity ever flipped, I’d know how to navigate.

Mrs. Brown never smiled at me once, but Lindsay could go up to her desk any time and could even make her laugh. I glowered at them from my slippery chair.

But things got better when our science class started a live butterfly unit.

The caterpillars were all in the back of the classroom. I’d go and look at them when I was supposed to be picking out my next SRA assignment. They were wiggling around, living their fat, happy, shoeless lives. I felt a proprietary thrill, knowing that one of them was technically mine. And it was sort of comforting to know that my caterpillar was back there doing fun caterpillar stuff while I was stuck practicing subtraction. Sometimes we helped Mrs. Brown feed them their special caterpillar food: tacky beige paste, with a pukey smell, kind of like vitamins and the pet aisle at WalMart.

And then came the day when the butterflies had hatched: the silent chrysalises disappeared and the cages filled with wings. Mrs. Brown directed us each to take one: Me, and cool perfect Lindsay, and her cool perfect friends, and the boys that threw rocks at us at recess.

I held my butterfly ever so carefully in a cage of fingers and palms, knowing how dangerous it would be to touch its sensitive wings. We filed down the hall and outside behind the classroom, to stand in a row on the pavement: and it was time to let ‘em go.

So I took my hands apart and looked at the perfect orange-and-brown butterfly standing on my palm, impossibly delicate. I felt a panicky hitch in my chest, a stab of acute regret. I wanted to clap my hand on top of it again, to keep not kill it, though it would have been the same thing.

But it was already too late. The butterfly stood for one moment, and then I was looking at a blank, missing the whisper-soft touch of its feet. I looked up at a cloud of orange and brown wings, and I couldn’t tell which butterfly was mine.

Mrs. Brown wasn’t one for dragging out farewells, so we filed back inside before the butterflies were out of sight. Back to subtraction, back to fiercely wiggling my toes.

I’m not going to try and make this bigger than it was, to claim that it was a formative experience for me—though it was for the butterfly. It wasn’t some kind of shattering, haunting, Annie-Dillard-and-the-Polyphemus-Moth episode, thank goodness.

So the rest of second grade went on as before: I was sweaty and talkative and out of place. I have never in my life been as poised as Lindsay was all that year. At the end of it, I gave Mrs. Brown a chocolate bar as a thank you, and she just looked at it glumly, like it was the wrong thing.

Over the summer, I captured caterpillars from time to time, and brought them to prepared little “habitats,” which means old applesauce jars that I filled with rocks and sticks and leaves. Those caterpillars met with rather messy, torturous ends: we were both in agony as I kept trying to stuff in the right kind of leaf, or to douse them with water, or give them whatever they needed, when I didn’t have a clue what that would be.

Now and then I thought about my butterfly, the one that made it. I imagined it cruising along, and I wondered where it was. I like to think that it drank a toast to me now and then, sipping nectar somewhere with its buddies: This one goes out to the kid who didn’t squish me. Good luck keeping those shoes on.


  1. Elaine Schnabel

    I think about my feet too. And let’s be honest: a chocolate bar is NEVER the wrong thank-you gift. Awesome writing here. As someone who achieved her elementary school goal of making teachers like me more than they liked my sister, I still identified with this somehow.

    • jenn langefeld

      Right? Who turns down a chocolate bar? And I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one with trapped feet… Thanks, Elaine!


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